A Tribute to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on his 150thbirth anniversary
By Ratnottama Sengupta
“By 1930 all of India and its British rulers too were uttering one name with awe: Gandhi. One evening it came to my ears that the Mahatma would reach Patna at 7am the next morning, spend the day in the city and leave by the Punjab Mail at night.
I did not sleep well that night, I was up at the crack of dawn and left home 5am on the pretext of getting a book from a friend.
But I could not get anywhere near the Patna railway station, which was teeming with people who had arrived before sunrise. It was no different along the path he would be driven down. I hung around at one end of the platform, eyes glued to the exit gate.
Policemen on horseback trotted past me. A police van was parked close by. Those patrolling the platform carried bayonets and batons. Because of my green years, and my small built, I was allowed to inch ahead. From time to time, the sky was rent with the cry of ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai! Long live the Mahatma!’
All of a sudden, perhaps to steel myself, I started to whisper ‘Vande Mataram*! Vande Mataram!‘ As if on a cue, the man next to me cried out aloud: ‘Vande Mataram!‘ The crowd roared in an echo: ‘Vande Mataram! Vande Mataram!!‘
The first time Arun and I go out after I lose my voice is to Niti and Kevin’s house. The evening of December tenth, their wedding anniversary. Eight years they’ve been married, eight years we’ve been friends. If I skip their party, they won’t hold it against me. Our friendship is stronger than that, but Arun won’t let me test it.
“You’ve got to get out of the house” —his answer to everything I say.
When the argument tires me out, I give in. The other guests have already filled up their lawn when we arrive. I peer at the crowd from inside the car. Panic pins me to my seat. I can’t breathe, can’t stretch my arm out and reach for the door. An avalanche of sympathy is about to hit me. Condolences are the last thing I want, but condolences will bury me alive when I go out there.
The traffic on the Amity Causeway linking Singapore and Malaysia was especially heavy for a Thursday, which put Dennis Quek even more on edge. He took a deep breath as he approached the first entry point station, hoping that he could swallow any obvious distress signs that the inspection machine might detect.
Finally, Dennis reached the front of a long queue. His car was pulled automatically into the right spot before the inspection machine. The hazy blue light filled the whole car, followed by the voice of the machine. “One person in vehicle. A driver, no passengers.”
Dennis nodded. He then turned his head to the right, ready for the facial identification. This time it was the warm, lemony light that filled the front of the inspection machine. Dennis squeezed out an awkward smile, thinking this was best for the situation. The smile was starting to get uncomfortable when the machine finally announced the identification.
Though I would have liked the subject to be Husbands and Conversations, yet it has to be singular for the time being.
With my treatment on in Mumbai and the incumbent’s hometown being in Jaipur, we spend long periods of separation leading to a highly happy relationship. We also spend an inordinate amount of time talking on the phone, on subjects other than—can you press my shirt, find my wallet, give me food, fetch me water, get my phone, switch on the light, switch off the AC, switch on the AC, switch off the light….
Away from the tedium of domesticity, we indulge in refreshed conversations where he drops many pearls of wisdom, while I manage to gather some.
About God: I share how I am inundated with suggestions on rituals to cure me. They range from getting mahamrityun jai jaap done, feeding black dogs on Thursdays, cows (on all days), to not feeding myself on special days reserved for gods. All this ostensibly to appease the Almighty and instill fear in the power of His wrath. The husband says that if He is the creator of the Universe and the Supreme Almighty, He better not look for petty appeasements and indulge in random anger when bhakts end up eating eggs on Tuesday. If God exists, he must be bigger than that. Food for thought.
“Chikki called in the morning,” Amma begins, seated at the dining table.
Dinner conversations at home have always been severely orchestrated, progressing into a chaotic crescendo. It always begins with the most neutral subject, me. And usually Achan sits silent, regarding his food with empirical interest. He is on standby for his cue.
“She’s had fever for two days now,” Amma continues.
“Has she been taking medicines? Ask her not to self- medicate.”
“Why would she self-medicate?”
“Alla, isn’t that what everyone in your family does?” Achan asks.
“I’ll be grateful if Chikki doesn’t inherit your arrogance.”
“You should be grateful if she turns out like me,” Achan responds grimly. “God forbid she becomes like you.”
There is very little light in this cell. I stare at her through the iron bars. She looks angry. There is no remorse in her eyes. She is tired, I know she is. I am tired too, like her and Siraji and the two other porters in our small team. But why is she angry? Her smile is gone. Why does she look at me like that? Like I am a stranger? She is the only mzungu here, and people are staring at her.
My name is Lucas Mtui and I have spent the last five days with her. I am not a stranger to her. I am an assistant guide of the Kilimanjaro National Park (KINAPA), but after this I am not sure if I will be, because she has taken away my name and given me a number. She says I am a thief.
We go from place to place. In Durjanpur, to nearby villages in that temporarily parched but exquisite Bihar landscape, in schoolyards and open bazaars. We present our play to young and old, masters and servants, women and men. We drive by expansive bajra and wheat fields, breathtaking floral carpets of white sesame and purple bush beans, starving peasants clutching their ribs and staring at us by roadsides and motorcycle-borne landed gentry – supposedly the most powerful and influential folks in the region – asking us city folks where we are headed next. None of these rural folks have ever seen a street play where actors don’t wear flashy make-up or gaudy clothes but just a pair of jeans and a shirt, where a woman acts and touches the men, and where no nachanias or dancers sway their hips to raunchy music – a staple non-family entertainment by travelling troupes in rural north India. The very first day we arrived in Durjanpur, I remember kids went running helter-skelter announcing us to the villagers. “Nachanias have come, nachanias have come!” they screamed, to which married women and young girls covered their face with an extra hard tug of the dupatta or the sari and hookah-smoking men sat in shock thinking the old headmaster has gone crazy inviting this impudent city bunch that is bound to corrupt good moral village folks. I am quite aware that nachanias connote immorality for them. Also a woman – that is me – in our team adds to their confusion they find tough to hide. For them, decent women in the village do not go about anywhere with a bunch of men, unless they happen to be her son, a relative or a client desirous of specific pleasures. My jeans and shirts – I brought limited change of clothes – attract attention, as does my scarf, briefly, which I wear for propriety’s sake only for a week and then discard, generating more palpable shock. Our hectic schedule doesn’t allow me to wash my shoulder-length hair regularly, so I myself chop further around the mop with a pair of scissors to make it look like a boy’s head. I thank my common sense for bringing a pair of sturdy sneakers. They literally keep me on my toes. It’s only when I come back to rest in the evening, that Muskaan amuses herself examining my precious box of skin creams and moisturizers, the stuff that I religiously use for fear of losing my feminine side. “Ah now I know why city women look so delicate!” Muskaan enjoys hurling banters at me. I give her a tube. “Keep that for yourself, aloe vera and vitamin D.” She laughs, the serpentine braid slithering on her back. Then poking me on my arm she says, “Sheherwali, chew tulsi leaves every morning. Even your backside will not get pimples! Besides, Maoists might still recognize you as a woman and not shoot.”
Things don’t turn out to be dreadful. The Ghost at the Altar runs into several shows. The play seems to have intrigued this sleepy region and its lethargic inhabitants. Not so sleepy really. Frequent ambushes by Maoists, deep-rooted caste feuds and occasional Hindu-Muslim tiffs keep this place alive and awake. And these influence periodic activities like elections, public works or other significant government projects.
Stephanie looked up at the corner of the kitchen. The dome was blinking again, but this time with a green light.
“No harm done.”
“I see you started cooking.”
Was that a hint of disapproval in her voice?
“Well yeah, I mean, I had no choice, you were taking longer than expected, and I just had to start first or else I would have no time before—”
“Stephanie, if you had waited, we could have saved eighteen minutes of preparation and cooking time. Furthermore, the spice level in your ayam buah keluak is too high for Sylvia Chan, and the amount of garlic too low for Siti Anissa.”
“How can it be too little garlic? I followed Mama’s recipe to the letter, the only thing I changed was to add sambal.”
“I tailor the recipe accordingly, depending on who you are cooking for. The taste preferences are shared with me by the Dianas of your guests.”
She remembers the conversation like it had happened yesterday.
“Is the trip going okay, Ma? You sound tired,” she’d said on the phone, from her hotel room in Kochi.
“Yes, yes, everything is fine. The weather’s been acting up a little. And the helicopter rides were not available. We had to take mules, instead, for the climb to Kedarnath. It was drizzling throughout. But we’re here now.”
“Have you found accommodation?”
“Oh, yes, yes, everything has been arranged by the tour company. We’re staying at a comfortable guesthouse. It’s not far from the shrine. We will go for the darshan in the morning. Don’t worry about us. We’re fine. How is your dance tour coming along?”